Benjamin Steinberg: Last Fundraising Letter, 1972

This is a picture of the original document, my father’s last fundraising letter in 1972, after he resigned from the orchestra. The picture on the blog is a thumbnail, which links to a full-resolution document when you click on it. The header for the stationery was in use for many years. I took the photo. More Wikipedia source material.

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Article in Allegro, the publication of Local 802

The link is http://www.local802afm.org/2014/02/open-to-all/

The reality of musicians of all backgrounds playing together on the same stage may seem ordinary today. But under the cruel mantle of racism in this country, an integrated orchestra was only a dream for many years. It was something my father, Benjamin Steinberg, longed for and ultimately won, right here in New York City. The story of his dream – which was an ensemble called the Symphony of the New World – is one that many musicians may not know.

As early as 1940, my father began to work with conductors Dean Dixon and Everett Lee to establish the first fully-integrated professional symphony orchestra in the U.S. It took more than two decades. Flutist Harold Jones remembers, “There was a nucleus of people: Elayne Jones, Harry Smyles, Joe Wilder, Wilmer Wise, Kermit Moore, Lucille Dixon. We all got together and had these meetings. ‘Are we interested?’ Everyone jumped to the idea. ‘Yes. Let’s do this. We’re going to do it – have an integrated orchestra.’”

With my father as music director, the mission statement listed the other founders: Alfred Brown, Selwart R. Clarke, Richard Davis, Elayne Jones, Harold M. Jones, Frederick L. King, Kermit D. Moore, Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, Ross C. Shub, Harry M. Smyles, and Joseph B. Wilder.

Finally on May 6, 1965, two months after the “Bloody Sunday” civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, the Symphony of the New World performed its debut concert at Carnegie Hall.

The program notes for that inaugural concert stated, “At this period in our history, when the problem of racial integration has become crucial to our nation’s well-being as well as to its position in the world, the debut concert of the Symphony of the New World is a historic event in the history of our time.”

Trumpeter Wilmer Wise recalls, “Some people were crying because it was something we had dreamt about and it had finally come to fruition. I never felt in my life the way I did when I sat on the stage with Benjamin Steinberg in a fully integrated orchestra – because, usually, I was the one integrating it.”

From the beginning, one of the orchestra’s goals was to bring performances into the community – not just to Carnegie or Philharmonic Hall. Three days after Carnegie Hall, the symphony repeated the same program at the High School of Music and Art in Harlem.

Then came “the Lenny letter”:

October 11, 1965
Mr. Donald L. Engle, Director
The Martha Baird Rockefeller Fund for Music
1 Rockefeller Plaza
New York, New York

Dear Mr. Engle:

It is a pleasure for me to be able to recommend The Symphony of the New World for a sizable grant. I have not actually heard the orchestra perform. But I have heard and known Mr. Steinberg, who conducted one of my theatre works 15 years ago (“Peter Pan”). He is extremely able and gifted; and I am sure that under his guidance the orchestra will flourish. Most important of all, of course, is the sociological impetus behind the project – a truly integrated symphony orchestra. The success of this project will certainly stimulate more of the same, and may provide us with our first big step out of the unfair and illogical situation in which we now find ourselves with the Negro musician.

Respectfully yours,

Leonard Bernstein

They got the grant. Many successful concerts and collaborations followed. James DePriest became the symphony’s principal guest conductor. There were also breakthroughs. Marilyn Dubow, a soloist with the symphony, won a seat in the New York Philharmonic as the first female violinist. Elayne Jones, another symphony almnus, joined the San Francisco Symphony as its first black woman timpanist. Thinking back on her days with the Symphony of the New World, Jones remembers, “The legitimacy of our organization was not acceptable until we had people who were supporting us. We had to have donations to begin to establish as a viable organization and to get union support! We had to begin getting players for this orchestra. All I remember is how complicated it was and what we went through. We had to also deal with those who said it couldn’t be done.”

The Symphony was an orchestral expression of the Civil Rights Movement. It strove to be a cultural beacon to the world, embodying the true American spirit of equality. Its mission was to integrate the symphonic stage, from which non-white, Asian, and female musicians had been nearly totally excluded.

Among the orchestra’s original sponsors were Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Paul Creston, Ruby Dee, Langston Hughes, Hershy Kay, Gian Carlo Menotti, Zero Mostel, Ruggiero Ricci, and William Warfield.

By 1971, everyone had great hopes for the season. John Hammond was president of the symphony’s board of directors, which included Marian Anderson, Leontyne Price and Zero Mostel. Ms. Anderson and Mr. Mostel were also patron artists, along with the Modern Jazz Quartet, George Shirley and William Warfield. In addition, the symphony had secured grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ford Foundation, among others. But that 1971 season was never completed.

One of the things my father used to do was ask principal players to sit second chair, so an up-and-coming musician could get a chance to gain experience. Everyone was happy to do it, until one person changed his mind.

Concert pianist and Smith College professor George Walker goes over his composition “Address for Orchestra” with Benjamin Steinberg. The Symphony of the New World premiered this piece at the High School of Music and Art in Harlem, then presented it the following day at Lincoln Center.

Two factions emerged. Arbitration ensued. They tried to take the name of the orchestra away from my father. It got to the point where my father had to resign backstage at Philharmonic Hall just before a concert on Dec. 12, 1971, so the concert could go on. He conducted the concert, nonetheless.

“Egos,” said Joe Wilder. “It was all about egos. I had been very proud to be a member of the orchestra, but I was annoyed at some of the racial overtones to Ben Steinberg’s resigning.”

Jazz writer Ed Berger’s forthcoming biography on Joe Wilder also quotes founding member and violist Alfred Brown: “There were some people – not the majority – who had a problem with him. Some of them felt the conductor should be black. I was not one of them. I liked him very much. He was very idealistic.” (See “Softly, With Feeling: Joe Wilder and the Breaking of Barriers in American Music,” Temple University Press, April 2014.)

In Feb. 1, 1972, my father wrote his last fundraising letter. It said, “It is with sincere regret that we must advise that, due to an internal controversy as well as unforeseen financial difficulties arising from the current general economic situation, the Symphony of the New World is canceling the rest of the 1971-1972 concert season. Not only have we sustained the economic pinch facing all non-profit cultural institutions this season, but because of the difficulties, some $100,000 in scheduled grants could not be received in time to permit the completion of this concert season.”

The symphony folded shortly thereafter. Despite its inglorious end, the musicians who were part of the Symphony of the New World felt proud to be a part of the project. “It built hope where there was very little,” flutist Harold Jones said. “It showed that, as black people, we had paid our dues and we could do it as well as anyone else. It was such a moment in life that I’m overwhelmed with it. I just wish it could have lasted. The inspiration that this could be done [remains] in all of us.”

The collection of my father’s papers was the life’s work of my mother, Pearl Steinberg. They reside at the Lincoln Center branch of the New York Public Library. The papers of the Symphony of the New World are at the Schomburg Center for Research and Black Culture. I welcome anyone who wants to contact me for more information. E-mail me at BarbaraAnneConsulting@gmail.com.

Postscript: Coincidentally, two founders of the Symphony of the New World passed away recently. Kermit Moore died on Nov. 2. Alfred Brown died on Nov. 17. Both obituaries were published in the January issue of Allegro. In addition, we’re pleased to mention that Elayne Jones – another founding member of the symphony – is alive and well and recently wrote some reminiscences that were published here in the December issue.

Ode to My Father

I am the last in a line of visionaries.

My grandfather, Rabbi Moses Steinberg, immigrated to the United States from Odessa, Russia, and felt the need to create a new religion: Americanism. His dream combined Judaism and the Constitution.

In addition to translating the Sermon on the Mount for the Smithsonian Institution Bible, he published a book himself, “The Greatest Story Never Told.” I found long letters to politicians in the many papers left to me when my family died, as lung cancer took them one by one. His letters seemed to transmogrify a miscellaneous political detail into an erupting volcano. They didn’t make much sense to me. I suspect schizophrenia caressed him.

However, the shtetl he fled when the Cossacks burned it down had a tradition. The men studied Torah; the women worked. My grandmother Annie arrived in America on Sept. 19, 1906 on the SS Carmania and saw the Statue of Liberty.

I can only imagine what this meant to her after feeling the heat and fear of the fires that burned her world to the ground. She sewed to support the family.

My mother told me that Annie could make a dress out of less fabric than anyone else she’d ever met because she knew where to cut. There was genius in Annie, and madness in Moses. Their daughter Dorothy was older sister to Benjamin, my father.

All great artists live on the fine line separating genius and madness. My father grew up in a world where immigrant Jews worshiped Heifitz’s mother, who locked him in a room daily for 8 hours to make him practice. Only then could he eat.

Misha Elmann was another star in that world. I have an autographed picture of him calling my father one of his best friends. Everyone wanted their child to be the next Misha Elmann.

My father made his Town Hall debut on the violin when he was 9. On the program was a Hebrew Dance by Achron, and he ended with the Polonaise Brilliante in A Major by Wieniawsky, one of the most technically difficult pieces in the violin repertoire. They marketed him as Little Ben.

But he went on to be in the first violin section of the NBC Symphony, study conducting with Fritz Reiner, conduct the original Music Man, Peter Pan, and West Side Story on Broadway, hire the first African-American musician in a Broadway pit orchestra against the segregation laws in the 1940s, conduct the Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo, American Ballet Theatre, the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, and started the first integrated orchestra in America, The Symphony of the New World. Leonard Bernstein wrote the letter recommending the project for the Ford Foundation grant.

Like Moses, my father was also a visionary. He was just not “touched by the angels.” He dreamed of social equality coming to life on the symphony orchestra’s stage.

The first African-American woman timpanist ever hired by the San Francisco Symphony came out of The Symphony of the New World, so did the first woman accepted into the violin section of the New York Philharmonic, so did the first African-American cellist in the New York City Ballet Orchestra.

The Symphony of the New World died because there was a power struggle, and those who won didn’t know how to pay the bills of a non-profit organization. My mother saved all the papers.

It took him a year an a half to die of pancreatic and lung cancer in our one-bedroom Manhattan apartment. On January 4, 1974, my mother held his hand. I went to school. When I came home, he was gone. I will never forget his yellow skin, but I think he died of a broken heart.

Someone he knew back then wrote

Where is your grave —
Or maybe even just a mound —
Benjamin Steinberg?
Where can we put a monument?
There is no grave.
You cannot be frozen into a statue,
Like some docile teacher’s pet.
You blaze
From the pedastals of the world stage,
Benjamin Steinberg.

Thirty-five years later, because I still cannot come to terms with losing the only soul’s reflection I have ever known, I wrote this:

In the name of the father
In the name of the daughter
In the name of justice
Over unnecessary death
Of a broken heart
Of a broken spirit
From a broken dream
By a man who dared

In the name of his symphony
Whose light might shine
On another day
For this generation
To stand for peace
In a world that screams war
In the name of the father
In the name of ideals
In the name of her grief
That has never died

After 35 years
In the name of the daughter
who inherited the spirit
who inherited the faith
In the name of courage
To believe again
That art could stop war

In the name of the father
In the name of the daughter
In the name of justice
In the name of peace
The dream still lives
The grief still kills
In the name of the father
In the name of love.

I wasn’t a good enough violinist to do what my father dreamed for me: make my Carnegie Hall Debut before I was 18, or be in the NY Philharmonic. I never could concentrate to practice enough.

I discovered my art form in 1994. It was online community vision, creation, management, moderation, writing, and multimedia. In that field, no one had to tell me to practice.

There is a Hebrew prayer for Yom Kippur, “In Memory of a Father.” It says in part, “In loving testimony to his life I pledge charity to help perpetuate ideals important to him… May I prove myself worthy of the gift of life and the many other gifts he gave me. May these moments of meditation link me more strongly with his memory.”

I have tried to fulfill this all of my life, even though I never knew this prayer existed until I was 50. DNA might be strong in pureblood Russian Ashkenzay Jews, but what can you do when you come from a man like this?

Whether I succeeded or failed, I am the last in line. I don’t have much time. Writing this blog is something. Anything, to pay homage to his name and finally come to terms with who I am, and realize that my whole life has been a love poem to him.

In 1994, I turned on the computer. In 1997, I went to the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU and learned that the purpose of online community was to stop war. Then, I based my life on my own words:

The product that an online community gives away is power. Members invest their emotions in one, and the community gives them back a stake in its future, its philosophy and its governance. …to create a stage where you can be understood when society ignores you. …to feel the warmth of someone’s soul imprint through their words, even when they live thousands of miles away. …to find validity when the real world is blind to you. …to find a soul mate when your body is wasting away from disease. These are some of the reasons why people who are involved in online communities are so passionate about them. They can give you the power to control your dignity.

I’ve devoted 15 years to being a member of online communities, helping to create its collective storytelling art, and working in the field. This book is a collection of the essays I wrote as I share the journey of my real and virtual lives, which became intertwined as one inseparable reality.